Question #1: is this even possible? Is there some sort of central database which contains details of all recent court cases involving custody of children in New York City?
Yes, it is possible.
The court clerk for each respective court in the State of New York maintains a list of every case pending that court that goes back many years in electronic form, and there is some minimal classification by case type although the classifications used might not precisely match what you are looking for - it might be necessary to include more than one kind of case and some classification categories might be over broad for your purposes.
There are probably at least three courts that could have jurisdiction over this kind of case in New York City.
The Supreme Court (i.e. the trial court of general jurisdiction) which has jurisdiction over custody cases that are incident to a divorce or legal separation and in certain other cases, for example, criminal felony child abuse and neglect cases take place in the Supreme Court;
the Family Court, a court of limited jurisdiction which lacks jurisdiction over divorces and legal separations but often handles custody matters involving unmarried couples, custody determinations incident to allegations of child abuse or neglect, and post-decree child custody matters; and
the Surrogate's Court, which handles custody determinations incident to deaths and incident to some incapacity determinations (as guardianships of minors) and if I recall correctly, incident to adoptions.
It also isn't inconceivable that a de facto custody decision could also be made in another court incident to issuance of a protective order or criminal case.
It is also quite possible that there may be multiple related cases in the same or separate court. For example, there might be a child abuse and neglect case terminating person B's parental rights in family court, and then a guardianship of a minor case appointing the adult child as guardian of the minor child in Surrogate's Court.
It is quite possible that more than one database (or portion of a centralized database) would have to be reviewed, rather than a single database. When I practiced law actively in New York there was not a single database, but that was more than 20 years ago and given the explosive improvement in information technology that has taken place since then, it would not surprise me at all if some or all of the relevant databases have since been consolidated.
They do not know person B's name or other identity, but know they are somewhere in New York City, New York, USA.
But they know the following about B: within last 4 years, B was a parent involved in a court case where their older adult child won custody of their younger underage child from them.
Some information about the children is known but not precise identity (let's say birthday and first name for one of them is known; as well as ages).
Notwithstanding my answer to question #1, it wouldn't be easy. While birthdays and ages would be present in documents filed in the various court cases, they would not be indexed centrally. The index of case names would contain the names of the parties to the case, the general case type, and the case number, and possibly the assigned judges and the attorneys who entered an appearance in the case.
Difficulties Involved In Searching By First Name
Unless the first name was very unique, locating it in a central index could be very difficult.
Also, it isn't at all uncommon for the day to day name that someone uses to differ from the person's legal name used in the court case caption, or for the person's name to be misspelled due to lack of accurate information or clerical error, or for a nickname of someone to be used instead of their legal name.
For example, suppose that the person you are searching for has the legal name: Jonathan Ralph Lee. This could easily have an indexed first name of Jonathan, Jonathon, Johnathan, Johnathon, Jon, John, Ralph or some totally unrelated nickname in the central index.
I know someone, for example, whose legal name is "Claire" who uses the name "Denny" which has no source in any part of her legal name, in all circumstances except legal documents, because at one point in her life that is what other people and she started to call her (for reasons that are not entirely clear to me), and it stuck.
A nickname totally unrelated to a legal name is particularly common among people who immigrate to the U.S. or have parents who do, whose legal name is not commonly used in the U.S. For example, I know someone born in Korea whose true name is Hei-Hyun who used the name June, which she used in English as a second language classes when she was first learning English abroad, in almost all circumstances except in legal documents. In those cases, either the legal name or the nickname could easily appear in court documents.
Everyday use of a middle name rather than a true first name is particularly common when father and son have the same true names apart from Senior and Junior or the third, for example, and when the first name is less common or otherwise embarrassing or overlaps with a classmate.
I've also known people who used a first name growing up and then later transitioned to a middle name at some point (often upon moving to a new school or new place) and people who have transitioned in the opposite direction under similar circumstances, in each case in connection with a desire of the person involved to "reinvent" themselves.
Other Information Which Would Greatly Help In Searching
It would be extremely helpful (cutting the number of cases involved dramatically) to know which borough within New York City this took place in, because at the level of court administration, each borough of New York City is a separate county with a separate set of court clerks and all case indexes would reveal the borough in which the case was brought.
The more you can narrow the time period, the easier it is for you to conduct the search.
If you knew the name of the school that the younger child who was subject to the custody order attended at any time and the younger child's first name and ethnicity, attempting to locate and review school yearbooks and newsletters in the relevant time period (often children are identified by name in newsletters listing children who won academic or attendance or sports awards, or who participated in special field trips, for example) would provide a much more solid basis for a further search of records related to person B, because this would give you a full name for the child and would also establish the most likely borough in which the records would be located. Often a list of parent names at the school can be found in PTA newsletters or lists in school newsletters of parent volunteers who are being thanked.
If you knew the address of person B or the younger child or the older child at some point, this would be very helpful. If they lived in a home that they owned you could search property records to find a name of person B or someone related to person B. If they rented, you would still narrow down the likely school that the younger child attended, the likely courts in which the action could have taken place, and you could go in person to the neighborhood and ask former neighbors.
Either a first name or a surname for person B, the parent, would also be extremely helpful, although a full name and borough of residence for person B would be much better and might limit the search, if you were authorized to make it, to just a handful of names. Knowing person B's gender would also help. If person B is the father, usually the child's surname will be the same as the father, while if person B was the mother and not married to the father, this would be much less common.
The more you know about the precise nature of the proceeding, the better.
It would be very unusual for an adult child rather than a parent to be awarded custody of a minor child outside of an abuse and neglect proceeding terminating person B's parental rights, or an adoption proceeding in which person B voluntarily relinquished his or her parental rights. So, the odds are good that you would want to search records in Family Court or Surrogate's Court, rather than in the Supreme Court which handles matrimonial actions.
If person B were prosecuted criminally for child abuse or neglect, there is a very good chance that the person is incarcerated in a state prison at this time and so a search of prisoners with the right partial name who were incarcerated at about the right time and were of the right gender could be fruitful. This would be particularly helpful if person B is a woman because there are far fewer incarcerated women than there are men, and there are far few women's prisons than there are men's prisons.
Knowing the name of the judge who handled the case would be extremely helpful and would greatly narrow the scope of the search. Also, if you identified the case with sufficient specificity in a request to the judge who handled the case to allow you to gain limited access to court records, it is quite likely that the judge would be able to identify the exact case involved with the help of court clerks from memory or partial memory of the case, making it much more likely that the judge would let you access the information that you needed. Media accounts of a case and appellate opinions arising from case (which are often publicly available in redacted form) are much more likely to identify the name of the judge than the name of the parties in a case involving a minor child.
Knowing who represented person B as a lawyer, or in the alternative, knowing that person B was not represented by a lawyer, would help narrow the list considerably. If you knew who the lawyer was, calling the lawyer's office and asking in a manner that explained your need to know would probably be more likely to provide information that obtaining it directly from the court system. Knowing the name of the opposing counsel would be almost as helpful.
If you new that person B acting pro se in the case, you could eliminate from the list all cases in which all parties were represented by a lawyer. This search could be made considerably more powerful if you knew the gender of person B as this would allow you to narrow the search to cases where someone of person B's gender was not represented by a lawyer.
If the case was an abuse or neglect case, it would have been prosecuted in the name of the State or the People, so you would look for cases where the defendant was not represented by counsel without regard to the attorney for the plaintiff.
Question #2: If this is theoretically possible, who would have access/privilege to do this? Any random person? A registered lawyer? Police? Court officer?
Usually cases involving juveniles are closed to the general public, so to access them, you would need to be an "interested party", and neither a "random person" nor a lawyer admitted to the bar in New York State could do so without that connection.
It might be possible to search case names that might contain the name of the child or the sibling without being allowed to access the contents of the file in some cases, I am not entirely sure on that point. If the case were incident to a case in which the child or the sibling was not a named party (e.g. the probate of a parent), this might not be sufficient to even identify the right case, however.
A good summary regarding access to court records in New York State is available here. In some of the pertinent parts, it states:
A number of statutes limit access to court records where the interest in confidentiality outweighs the public interest in disclosure:
A. Family Court Records
Access to court records in the Family Court is governed by Section 166 of the Family Court Act, which provides that the records of any proceeding in Family Court are not open to indiscriminate public inspection. In order to access a particular Family Court record, the requesting party must make an application to the Court and set forth the reasons for the request. It is solely within the discretion of the Court whether to permit the inspection of such records. Certain individuals, such as the parties and their representatives, are permitted access to Family Court records without application to the Court. 22 NYCRR205.5
Given that "B was a parent involved in a court case where their older adult child won custody of their younger underage child from them.", it is conceivable that one could articulate a reason for the need to do the search that a Family Court judge would authorize, but that would depend to a great extent on the precise nature of the reason for the search. It helps that the person you are actually searching for is an adult who would have been a named party in the case, and not the actual minor child.
But, a Family Court judge would probably be pretty reluctant to authorize a search on behalf of someone who didn't even know the name of the person being searched for and instead only knew the first name and age of one of that person's children. In part, this is because it indicates that the "need" to locate person B is not very strong, and in part, this is because the search would be much more intrusive requiring review of actual court filings in many cases rather than merely reviewing the index of cases.
It further states:
B. Civil Actions
Like criminal proceedings, civil actions are presumptively open pursuant to the guarantees under the First Amendment. Unlike criminal actions that present constitutional considerations for criminal defendants, in civil actions the First Amendment guarantees must be measured against the public interest in requiring disclosure.
- Family Court Proceeding
The declaration in Section 4 of the Judiciary Law of a presumption of public access to court proceedings does not differentiate among the courts, and therefore applies to the Family Court, subject to any other statute that gives special treatment to Family Court proceedings. As such, there is also a presumption of openness to all Family Court proceedings, and Section 205.4 of the Uniform Rules [22 NYCRR] expressly provides that the Family Court is open to the public, including the media. However the presumption can be overcome on a case-by-case basis by an overriding interest that closure is essential to preserve higher values. See e.g., Globe Newspaper Co. v. Superior Court, 457 US. 596, 608; Matter of Ruben R., 219 A.D.2d 117 (1st Dept.),lv. to app. denied 88 N.Y.2d 806 (1996) (holding potential trauma to mental and physical well-being of children required closure of child protective proceeding to public and press); Matter of Katherine B., 189 A.D.2d 450 (2d Dept. 1993) (holding public properly excluded from child protective proceeding where compelling testimony established that child would be adversely affected).
Section 205.4 (b) of the Uniform Rules [22 NYCRR] provides specific factors that a judge may consider in determining whether to close the courtroom or to exclude specific individuals, such as preserving courtroom decorum, avoiding a disruption in the proceedings, and serving the orderly administration of justice, including privacy interests of individuals before the court and the need to protect litigants from harm.
- Matrimonial Proceedings
Domestic Relations Law § 235(2) grants the court the discretion to exclude the public if "the public interest requires that the examinations of the witnesses should not be public." Because matrimonial proceedings include matters concerning child custody, visitation and maintenance, aside from potential embarrassment to the litigants in a public proceeding, the public interest standard may protect minors from public testimony. See CPLR 4019; Matter of Lincoln v, Lincoln, 24 N.Y.2d 270 (1969) (trial court had discretion to interview the child in a custody proceeding in private).
- Adoption Proceedings
Given the nature of adoption proceedings, the proceedings are confidential and held in closed courts, and the records pertaining to adoptions are sealed pursuant to Domestic Relations Law § 114. See Matter of Walker, 64 N.Y.2d 354 (1985) (setting forth the considerations for deeming adoption records confidential).
- Mental Competency Proceedings
The media has a qualified right of access to competency hearings, whether held pursuant to the Mental Hygiene Law or the Criminal Procedure Law. See Matter of New York News v, Ventura, 67 N.Y.2d [sic]
C. Matrimonial Actions
Section 235 of the Domestic Relations Law provides that neither an officer of the court with whom the proceedings in a matrimonial action or a written agreement of separation is filed or an action or proceeding for custody, visitation or maintenance of a child are filed, or before whom testimony is taken, or his clerk, either before or after termination of the suit shall not permit a copy of any pleadings, affidavits, findings of fact, conclusions of law, judgment of dissolution, written agreement of separation or memorandum thereof, or examination to be taken by any person other than a party, or the attorney or counsel of a party, except by order of the court.
D, Confidential Records Records contained in a court file that are deemed confidential may not be disclosed absent a court order including the following: . . .
• Court records in sex offense cases that might identify the victim. See Civil Rights Law § 50-b.
• Mental health records, including records of commitment, retention and discharge proceedings of the mentally ill and mentally retarded (see Articles 9 and 15 of the Mental Hygiene Law; CPL 330.20) and clinical records submitted in connection with the proceedings (see Mental Hygiene Law § 33.13[c]). . . .
• Records of adoption proceedings. See Judiciary Law § 90.10.
• Other records or documents that have been sealed or designated confidential by the court.
I am not completely clear on the extent to which the case name itself is suppressed, as opposed to merely the contents of the case file in some of these situations, but where the name of a child is suppressed due to confidentiality this often extends to the name used in the caption and indexing of a court case that is available to lawyers not involved in the case and the general public.
A court official would have authority to look at the information, but probably wouldn't be allowed to disclose it to you in any situation where you or a random lawyer was not allowed to do so, for the reasons set forth above.
I can imagine circumstances in which the police or the prosecutor's office would be allowed to review sealed juvenile custody case records in furtherance of a criminal prosecution or potential criminal prosecution, but I couldn't tell you how they would go about getting that authorization as I have never practiced criminal law and am not familiar with that level of procedural detail in New York State.
But, it is hard to imagine law enforcement coming to your aid in the circumstances you describe, although without knowing the reason that you want to locate person B, it is hard to know for sure.